Three main candidates appear to be vying for the World Jewish Congress’ leadership when Edgar Bronfman vacates the presidency June 10.
The WJC’s 23-person executive committee, which is made up of the steering committee and the organization’s vice presidents, will meet June 10 to propose an acting president, who would head the organization until a president is chosen for a full four-year term at the next plenary in 2009.
The WJC’s governing board, made up of representatives from the various world bodies that comprise the congress, will convene in New York later on June 10. The board either will approve the executive committee’s candidate for acting president or select another one nominated from the floor.
Bronfman informed the WJC’s steering committee last week that he was resigning after nearly 30 years as the WJC’s steward and primary benefactor, capped by four recent years of turmoil and investigations into the organization’s finances.
Potential candidates must declare and submit a bio to the WJC secretariat by June 1. As soon as Bronfman resigned, Pierre Besnainou, president of the European Jewish Congress and a member of the steering committee, backed the chair of the WJC’s executive committee, Mendel Kaplan of South Africa, for the presidency.
A lawyer by training, Kaplan controls Cape Gate, his family’s steel manufacturing business. He is a former president of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s board of governors and is honorary president of Keren Hayesod, JAFI’s international fund-raising arm.
Before his resignation, Bronfman had been lobbying to have his son, Matthew, take over his job. In an e-mail interview with JTA, the senior Bronfman would not comment on his family’s future involvement with the organization.
“Right now is too soon to say,” he told JTA last week.
Matthew Bronfman, chairman of the WJC’s budget and finance committee and until recently a director at Israel Discount Bank, h! as not r esponded to JTA queries about his plans. It’s not clear whether he’ll run for acting president, because of opposition in the organization to the appearance of a dynasty; some say he’ll take another position in the WJC leadership and run for president in 2009.
Cosmetics mogul Ronald Lauder is the third person who appears to be positioning himself for a run. He sent a letter last week to the WJC’s American Section warning that the selection of a president must be done in accordance with the organization’s by-laws. The organization affirmed that it was committed to doing so.
Warren Kazak, Lauder’s special assistant, told JTA that Lauder would not officially enter the race until he was “sure that there is going to be a fair and transparent election.”
Lauder, a former WJC treasurer, is president of the Jewish National Fund and a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He has played a central role in reviving Central and Eastern European Jewry by building schools across the region through the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.
Under Lauder, JNF emerged from a late-1990s scandal over its allocations and now receives high rankings from Charity Navigator, a non-profit watchdog group.
Two sources told JTA off-the-record that in recent days Lauder has sought the support of Alexander Mashkevich, president of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, and Moshe Kantor, president of the Russian Jewish Congress.
On Wednesday, the sources say, Lauder was in Israel lobbying for support. Kozak would not confirm or deny that.
“We are not cutting any deals,” Kozak said. “What he is absolutely determined about is that he wants this to be an open and fair election, so there are no deals.”
While that trio angles for the WJC’s top lay spot, its top professional, secretary general Stephen Herbits, is at the center of the maelstrom.
Herbits is a former top aide to former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald R! umsfeld and a longtime consultant to Edgar Bronfman at Seagrams. Bronfman brought him to the WJC in 2004 in the face of a investigation into WJC financial practices by the New York State attorney general.
Some found Herbits’ tactics for restoring order aggressive and gruff, and there has been intense pressure on Bronfman and the steering committee to fire him or force him to resign before the June 10 election.
Herbits declined repeated interview requests for this story, giving only a statement through the WJC’s public relations firm, Dan Klores Communications.
“Stephen Herbits’ singular focus is on ensuring compliance with the law, and assuring a free, fair and open election. Ensuring a transparent election process, on top of the governance reforms that have already implemented, will restore credibility to this important organization,” the statement said.
Speculation abounds as to Herbits’ fate. He was voted into his position by the WJC plenary and sources in the WJC say it would be very difficult to fire him. Unless he resigns or is fired, he is slated to hold his position until 2009 or the WJC’s next plenary meeting.
Those close to Herbits say he has no intention of resigning before a new acting president is elected.